Bent gets straight to the point with plan for salvation

Charlton's hopes of rescuing season after awful start rest on their striker's phenomenal form. Jason Burt talks to an Englishman with an eye for goal
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The Independent Online

Darren Bent confesses to an addiction. When he watches football he can't help fiddling with the television remote control and switching to the "Player Cam" function - allowing him simply to follow a single player - rather than watching the match. "I always end up looking at the strikers," Bent says.

The "Player Cam" of Charlton Athletic's season so far would, also, focus on just one player: Darren Bent. He has carried the team with six goals - out of a total of just seven - and performances that show the striker is more than a prolific goalscorer.

"We are relying heavily on Darren," manager Iain Dowie admitted after the crushing disappointment of Monday's defeat at Fulham, "but we can't keep doing that." Bent was, Dowie said, "magnificent" at Craven Cottage, scoring opportunistically from the single half chance that fell his way. Indeed, Bent has started this season in the compelling form that he maintained in his first in the Premiership when he finished, with 18 league goals, as the highest-scoring Englishman.

But it has not been enough. Charlton's chances of staying in the division have taken on an unhealthy pallor and Bent is well aware of the scenario. It makes today's home encounter with Watford all the more crucial. "Even though it's early in the season people are already writing us off," the 22-year-old says. "We are drifting very close to being talked about as being relegated."

Indeed, Charlton were written off by many before the season started. "People have their ideas as to who will go down and with the start we've had and who we've had to play they are thinking, 'They're going to struggle'," Bent says. "And obviously we are. But we know if we don't worry about the fact that we are being commented on left, right and centre then we can turn it around."

Maybe they have fretted too much. It is easy to ascribe the struggle to the departure, after 15 years, of Alan Curbishley which has inevitably been followed by a turnover of players. "It was very disappointing when I found out he was leaving," Bent admits. "And it also wasn't the best of circumstances." That was in reference to the Saturday in late April with the players waiting for the final team-talk before they faced Blackburn Rovers. Instead Curbishley announced he was leaving at the end of the season. "It was 10 minutes before kick-off," Bent says. "It affected the players and we got battered 2-0. I don't know why it happened like that. But we didn't look anything like a team that day."

Bent is a great admirer of Curbishley not least because it was his persistence that brought the striker to Charlton when, once again, Ipswich Town failed to make it through the Championship play-offs. "He'd been in before to try and buy me and Ipswich said no," Bent says. "But he came back straight away. I think it was the Thursday morning after we lost in the semi-final and by that afternoon he had been given permission and had come to my house. Alan said he was buying me to play, not sit on the bench. That was the key.

"I remember him saying the fans would love me because I'm English, I'll run around all day and it wasn't too much of a jump for me. It was a stepping stone. He said I'd learn and enjoy it here. He gave me my chance." It was also a bit of a homecoming. Bent is a London boy. Born in Tooting he was 10 when he moved, with his mother Shirley, to Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire, after his parents split up. He still speaks every day to his father, Mervyn, who, as a former player, helped to guide him through his apprenticeship at Ipswich Town. Bent's ascent was rapid. Within three years, aged 17, he made his first-team debut, in 2001 in the Uefa Cup against the Swedish side Helsingborg. The following April, he struck the winning goal against Middlesbrough just 20 seconds after coming on for his Premiership debut.

"I still have a great passion for Ipswich," Bent says. "They gave me the opportunity and I hope they get promoted." He would have stayed had they done so during his time but, with 49 goals in 122 League games, the pull of the Premiership was too great while Ipswich could not refuse the £2.5m plus a further £500,000 when he makes his competitive debut for England.

That is still to come. So far there have been only a couple of substitute appearances for a player who has represented his country at every level from Under-15s onwards. Most recently he was a late call-up to the squad for the European Championship qualifiers and his omission from the World Cup remains a vexed issue. "I don't know," he says when asked about his England prospects. "I travel a lot but I don't play so it's out of my hands. All I can do is keep knocking the ball into the net. If I don't then it's fair enough not to pick me. Obviously you should be picked on form. If I'm scoring then there is no reason why I should not be there."

Bent is not just Charlton's talisman but also their live wire. "Last season the Premier League was so fresh to me," he says, "that even in some games when I wasn't getting a sniff, two kicks in a game, I'd come off buzzing. We were beaten 3-0 by Arsenal and it could have been seven. But I came off happy. Partly it was because I was an Arsenal fan when I was younger but I was just gobsmacked by the whole experience. I'm still a novice."

Ian Wright was his hero and there are also similarities between the two. "People have said that," Bent says. "I think in style we are different, but I've tried to take on some of his characteristics. I loved his general play, the goals he scored, but also the passion he showed. His love for the club is the reason he did so well."

Not that he is some star-struck innocent. Such was the esteem that his peers held him in that last season only Wayne Rooney prevented Bent being named the Professional Football Association's Young Player of the Year. "It couldn't have gone better," Bent, who has scored 28 goals in 54 games and signed a new four-year deal last summer, says. "Defenders started treating me differently after Christmas, looking at me more closely but that was an honour. They were looking at me and thinking, 'We have to stop him because he's the danger man'." A few weeks ago Bent himself made a beeline for another hero, Thierry Henry, after Charlton's meeting with Arsenal, in which Bent scored, so that the two could exchange shirts. "He's the ultimate striker," he says. "When he was at Monaco I spotted him and I remember thinking, 'Who's that?' When he came to Arsenal I just watched him all the time." Not least when he has the opportunity to use that "Player Cam" button.

Technology also plays a big part for Charlton's new manager. This interview is sandwiched between a morning training session and an afternoon video analysis meeting with Dowie. "Iain is enthusiastic, he brings something new. He's been great, although it's been difficult for him coming from Crystal Palace, arch-rivals of Charlton," Bent says. "But we believe in his methods." Despite the poor start the atmosphere is buoyant. Talk of dressing-room discontent is wide of the mark. As at Palace, Dowie has encouraged the players to swim and box. At first the players were unsure. "He's brought in John Harbin [the former rugby league coach] and what he said to us is that, 'It's a mental thing because you are doing something you don't want to do'," Bent says. '"But you are doing it for mental toughness. During a game it could be 1-1 in the 90th minute and you have to run back. You might find it hard but you have to for the team.' Some of the sessions may seem odd but it's always explained."

The truth is that, so far, it has not worked. Injuries have hurt but seven League defeats in eight games tells their own story. Charlton have suffered such slumps before - they did last season - but the circumstances are different. "Then we were second for quite a long time," Bent says, "and the drought hit us. This time we've got to the drought straight away. We don't have the points to already be in front of everyone else." But why does it happen? "We battered Portsmouth and lost 1-0 to a soft goal," Bent says. "It's things like that which change seasons and we want them to start going in our favour. It's time for everyone to stand up and be counted. No one can hide."

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